The location of the American Embassy in Israel has been an issue of controversy for decades, but it is newly on the front burner. Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a persistent Donald Trump campaign promise, one of its strongest advocates is ambassador-nominee David Friedman, and Israeli officials called on Trump to relocate the embassy in their messages of congratulations on his election. Like so many other variables in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this one boils down to whether you feel more strongly about principles or feel more strongly about outcomes. Unlike other areas of contention between Israel and the Palestinians, this is one where the smart solution is one against which I instinctively recoil.
The historical reason for the embassy being located in Tel Aviv is because the international community views the overall status of Jerusalem as being subject to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This is not an issue in which the U.S. is an outlier in any way – while there were a small number of primarily Latin American countries that located their embassies in Jerusalem in the past, there have been no embassies in Jerusalem for over a decade. Aside from the American position that the status of Jerusalem should not be pre-judged, there is a daily and ongoing practical reason as well for having the embassy in Tel Aviv. American regional allies are adamant that locating the embassy in Jerusalem would be a literally explosive issue, and indeed Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have on national security grounds waived the requirement in the Jerusalem Embassy Act that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem. It is taken as an article of faith that moving the embassy will create protests not only in Israel but against American embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and subject American diplomats and soldiers to the threat of violence.
The argument for moving the embassy to Jerusalem relies on a basic notion of fairness. Israel defines its capital as Jerusalem, and yet it is the only country in the world whose capital – determined by its own democratically elected and sovereign government – is not accepted by the rest of the international community. Despite the fact that Jerusalem does indeed represent a complex problem whose ultimate settlement must be resolved through negotiations, this is a red herring. Israel’s capital is in West Jerusalem, the newer section of the city that was built by Jewish residents of Palestine and that was part of Israel from the very beginning. Its status is not and never has been disputed, was not and is not subject to any past or future negotiations, and is not the part of the city that is viewed by some as being more appropriately internationalized. Many Israelis and American Jews view the refusal to locate the American embassy in West Jerusalem as an unfair double standard, and believe the Palestinian and larger Arab red line over moving the embassy to be evidence that the issue is acceptance of Israel in any borders rather than a stand against Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
Many people and organizations on both sides of this issue feel very strongly about it, as evidenced by the flood of statements and commentary on it since Trump’s election. Similar to the debate over the president using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” it is an example of the divide over whether powerful symbolism should take precedence over more easily measurable consequences, and as with that debate, there are legitimate arguments for both. Irrespective of where one falls out, I wish that those on opposite sides of this divide would recognize that it is not a cut and dry debate.
To keep the embassy where it is does not constitute a purely neutral move. Israelis rightly feel that it signals an unwillingness to accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people, the return to which was the object of centuries of Jewish longing. An American embassy in West Jerusalem does not prejudice the status of the Old City or negate the eminently reasonable desire of Palestinians to have their future capital in East Jerusalem. Keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv grants a hecklers’ veto to those whose real problem is with any Israeli presence in Jerusalem and who aim to deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. As with the Temple Mount status quo, having the world’s diplomatic corps to Israel live and work in Tel Aviv is a very painful concession, even if it is one that is ultimately wise for security purposes.
To move the embassy is an ideological move completely devoid of any practical considerations. It doesn’t mean that it is ultimately the wrong policy to adopt, but it is highly misleading to pretend that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is the clear “pro-Israel” move and that keeping it in Tel Aviv is a sign of less than full support for Israel. Moving the embassy will not necessarily result in chaos and riots in Jerusalem itself, but there is no question that it will result in chaos and riots somewhere, whether in other spots in Israel, the West Bank, Muslim-majority countries, or at American and Israeli embassies around the world. Is making a completely symbolic statement of moving the embassy worth even one American, Israeli, or Palestinian life? Is it worth even one dollar of property damage? Is it worth the PLO following through on its threat to withdraw its recognition of Israel, or halt the security cooperation that is preventing mass terrorism and rockets from the West Bank? The idea that the American embassy can be moved in a cost-free manner is laughable.
The embassy issue is hard. Do not use it as a litmus test for what is right or wrong, what is supportive of Israel or not, what should be done or should not be done. Above all, do not turn it into such a sacred cow that keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv will automatically result in a 50% cut to American embassy security worldwide, as the absolutely insane bill introduced in the Senate last week will do. Policies have consequences, and moving the American embassy or keeping it where it is involves a lot more than whether diplomats will have to order new business cards. We are entering an era where every policy is in danger of being reduced to a mere rhetorical argument; do not give into that temptation with regard to this one.